Sometimes just a scant few minutes of a movie can build a permanent home in your memory. Scenic Routes is a feature devoted to exploring cinema's most remarkable individual sequences: the sublime, the exasperating, the iconic, the ineffable.
As I used to say back in my debating days:
RESOLVED: That the use of a therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, or any other variety of mental-health practitioner, licensed or unlicensed, as a major character in a fictional motion picture should be prohibited by law.
Back when the AVC brass and I were kicking around the idea for this column, my sole concern was that it would afford me no opportunities for evisceration. Analyzing one brilliant scene after another, I’d be in permanent praise mode—more of a cheerleader than a critic, I feared. Ridiculous, of course. Two weeks ago, I even managed to find a bit of fault with a classic scene in Double Indemnity, one of my favorite movies of all time. But I also realized that there’s nothing stopping me from occasionally tackling a scene that I find utterly noxious, so long as it’s culturally significant and not just a case of run-of-the-mill ineptitude. And the very first example that popped into my head was the climactic therapy session from Good Will Hunting, which manages to cram multiple egregious and damaging falsehoods about the nature of lingering trauma and the function of personal therapy into five minutes and four key words. Take a look, but if you’ve eaten in the last couple of hours, be sure to stifle that gag reflex.
Even on the DVD scene-selection menu, this preposterous tête-à-tête between Matt Damon’s Will Hunting and Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire is titled “It’s not your fault,” and that repeated phrase was all I really remembered a dozen years later, having only seen the film once. It’s every bit as moronic now as it was then. For one thing, even if we grant that Damon has had his defenses methodically broken down over the course of previous sessions, it’s hard to buy that the kid who once sat down with the sarcastic rallying cry “Let’s do it, I’m pumped! Let’s let the healing begin!” would crumble almost immediately, never calling Williams on such a blatant rhetorical device. Even someone who’s not combative by nature would balk: “Dude, give it up. Not gonna work.” Here, Damon, who’s been battling Williams for the entire damn movie, goes from “Yeah, I know” to “Don’t fuck with me” to giant blubbering baby sobs in under a minute. And even the brief middle stage, complete with angry shove, clearly means “Don’t toy with my festering emotions,” not “Knock off the pathetic sub-Arthur Janov bullshit.”
Even if this exchange had been more credibly written and acted—and I’m afraid Damon gets much of the blame on both counts—it still badly distorts the practice of therapy, sending the message that a counselor is supposed to feed you the answers to your problems rather than create a context in which you come to some sort of meaningful revelation on your own. And if you don’t immediately accept the answer to your problem, this scene tells us, then it’s the shrink’s duty to pinch your nostrils shut and shove the answer down your throat until you finally swallow. Watching it again, I wound up concocting an SNL-style parody in which Williams would pick up a baseball bat with IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT stenciled on it and club Damon upside the head, then perhaps rip his shirt off and start tattooing the phrase on his chest. Plus, in the real world, words lose power with repetition, at least in the short term. When your paramour says “I love you” once or twice, you swoon; 10 times in a row, however, and the response will almost certainly be a deeply suspicious “Okay, look, what do you want?”
Still, as phony and misleading as that particular moment is, I was even more troubled this time by the part I’d totally forgotten about: Williams’ admission to Damon that he, too, had been physically beaten on a regular basis by a paternal nightmare. The details of their respective traumatic childhoods pretty much beggar credulity—we’ve got one Tough Little Kid who deliberately provokes attacks from his drunken dad in order to spare the rest of his family, only to be trumped by an even Tougher Little Kid who, regularly presented with a choice of weapons (uh-huh), selects the wrench “because fuck him.” What truly rankles, though, is the scene’s implicit suggestion that Williams was finally able to get through to Damon because of their ugly shared history—as if, for example, somebody needs to have been raped in order to be an effective rape counselor. Apparently, only those who’ve experienced all manner of hell should bother entering the profession, since patients won’t respond without proof that they’re talking to a fellow survivor. That sounds pretty healthy.
As if to reinforce that this is a big dumb Hollywood notion of how psychiatry works, director Gus Van Sant—who was more or less slumming here, as his return to aggressively arty films like Elephant and Paranoid Park has since confirmed—throws in a hokey Hollywood flashback, showing us Damon’s mean foster father (I think) climbing the stairs en route to some genius-stunting violence. I can’t for the life of me work out what purpose these two brief images are meant to serve, nor why the second one suddenly goes kaleidoscopic—that gratuitous flourish feels like Van Sant getting bored with close-ups and two-shots, frankly. But he comes to his commercial senses in time for the big finish, serving up the ultimate in rent-a-hack moves: the slow, significant dolly back as Damon and Williams hug and cry. Hard to believe that the man behind this painful shot would take Damon and fellow GHW cast member Casey Affleck into the desert five years later and follow them on a seven-minute zombie march.
For the record, I don’t hate Good Will Hunting. I sort of like it, actually. (My AVC grade would be a B-.) When the film is content merely to loiter with Damon and his chums, observing, it’s a delight—the best moments are only tangentially related to the plot, and share an easy, relaxed tone in sharp contrast with the strained quality that permeates everything else. Damon’s tentative romance with Minnie Driver (who had maybe the shortest It Girl tenure on record: 1997 and out) remains charming, “them apples” and all. But the bogus Damon/Williams sparring matches—this one in particular—leave a rancid aftertaste, especially since they seem to be largely responsible for the film’s enduring popularity. Truth is, shrinks are a terrible subject for movies, even in the best of circumstances. Like every narrative medium, cinema is inherently therapeutic; dramatizing therapy sessions thus amounts to running expository Cliffs Notes in a TV-news-style crawl along the bottom of the screen. (“Will feels insecure here, is lashing out at Skylar for fear that she may abandon him in the future.”) Please, stick to incident and behavior, and let those elements reveal character. Tell me less about your mother.